Virtuoso cellist Steven Isserlis is comically gloomy about his impending 60th birthday, describing his forthcoming Wigmore Hall celebration concert, with starry guests Sir András Schiff, Radu Lupu, Connie Shih, Ferenc Rados, Joshua Bell and Simon Keenlyside, as “my funeral in advance”. Laughing, he asks, “Is there really life after the fifties? Surely, it’s a portal into old age?”

Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

He’s joking, of course; this is man with no intention of slowing down. “I take András Schiff as my inspiration. He’s still playing unbelievable programmes every few days, absolute marathons.” (Schiff turns 65 this month).

Absolute marathons might also describe Isserlis’s birthday season, featuring international tours, two disc releases, a residency in Potsdam, numerous chamber music collaborations, appearances with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and debuts with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York and with the Dresden Staatskapelle. That’s not the schedule of a man reaching for his slippers.

But it won’t all be plain sailing. He confesses to a dread of live broadcasts, even when he is playing the Schumann concerto, one of his favourites, as he will with the BBCSO at London’s Barbican in January. “I’m always convinced I will forget the next note. I have had this constant fear since I had a memory lapse in my early twenties. I know every note of the Schumann but I’m never blasé. In fact, I’m terrified.”

Isserlis is talking to me from Japan, looking out over the Osaka skyline from a room on the 32nd floor of his hotel. It is the night before he is due to play the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Hyogo Performing Arts Centre Orchestra under Christian Arming. Successive decades have crept up on him and he reflects with some alarm that it is 45 years since he learned to play the piece. “In 2023, it will be 50 years! How did that happen?”

Steven Isserlis
© Joanna Bergin

We talk about the long journeys that every musician has to endure. Much as he hates jet lag, he enjoys the opportunities that travel gives him to meet up with other musicians on the road. “Evgeny Kissin is staying in this hotel, so we are having dinner tonight,” he says. “And I met Radu Lupu for the first time in this very hotel,” he said. “I’ve always been in awe of him. He is an idealist, a true musician. I wouldn’t even admit to him that I am on Twitter; he’s so pure he would never do anything like that. Of course, he is also a deeply kind man and we have become good friends but only now have I dared ask him to play with me. The Wigmore Hall concert will be the first time that we have performed together. I’m thrilled. He’s such a great musician.”

Closer to home, how does he feel Brexit will affect his travelling – and the travel of all musicians? “A lot of my work is in Europe, especially Germany, so I hope it is not more than just the pain of getting visas,” he says. “I don’t want us to leave, but most of the people who voted for Brexit couldn’t care less about musicians.”

Looking back to his early years he says his viola-playing sister Annette and violinist sister Rachel were the biggest influences on him as a boy. “Our parents were very musical and there was always music in the house. My sisters were my inspiration. Even today, they always know so much more about music than I do.”

In addition to the Dvořák concerto, his Japan tour included his Proust and Music programme with pianist Connie Shih, which they took to Kanack, Nagakute and Tokyo and which features a piece that Thomas Adès wrote for him, Lieux retrouvés. Isserlis has a new agent in Japan, and the ever-mischievous cellist “had an amusing five minutes asking her to pronounce it – but she got her own back by making me eat with chopsticks; something I simply can’t do”.

Steven Isserlis
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Similarly, he recalls seeing Paul McCartney (with whom he has collaborated in the past) urging a Japanese audience to sing along to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, “which I thought was a little bit sadistic of him...”

For all his teasing, Isserlis loves Japanese audiences, saying they are very attentive and are the most genuinely sensitive to his playing. “In America, after a concert people will slap me on the back and drawl things like ‘Good jaab’, but in Japan when they queue for me to sign their CDs they are always warm and appreciative.”

Isserlis has become known for his championing of Schumann and Fauré, two composers he feels have been unfairly derided. “So many people say nasty things about late Schumann but I just adore that music. I really want to change people’s minds. It’s become a cause. Often the people who are rude about Schumann also don’t understand Fauré. They are very both related in my mind – Fauré adored Schumann’s music.

“We hear much more Fauré in the UK than we do on the continent. I remember Ferenc Rados heard the string quartet at Prussia Cove [Isserlis is artistic director of the prestigious Cornwall-based International Musicians Seminar] and afterwards he said ‘Now this I understood.’ It took Fauré’s most complex, possibly most illusive piece for him to see the point.”

Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Last winter’s foul weather nearly scuppered a recording of Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Prokofiev rarities that Isserlis had put together with pianist Olli Mustonen, but a black cab ploughed through the snow all the way from London to Potton Hall in Suffolk and the results will be released in the spring. “I’m very proud of this recording,” he said. “I’ve known Olli since he was 16 and we both love the Kabalevsky sonata: it’s a mind-blowingly good piece that’s rarely played.”

Of all his many musical endeavours over the coming year, Isserlis says possibly his favourite is performing the Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano with Robert Levin on fortepiano. “It’s Beethoven, so who wouldn’t enjoy it, but playing them with fortepiano is special. It means I have to remember to play down, which is good for me. Bob can be as violent as he likes!”

And besides, the composer holds a special place in Isserlis family history. In 2014, Isserlis told the story of his grandfather, the pianist Julius Isserlis, one of a handful of musicians allowed to leave Soviet Russia in 1920 to perform abroad. On arrival in Vienna he found a flat, only to be refused a tenancy by the 102-year-old landlady. Her aunt had had a terrible time with a bad-tempered musician who spat copiously on the floor, so she would not rent to any musician. The name of that bad tenant? Ludwig van Beethoven.


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